Today the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme breaks its journey for the eighteenth time. We’ve arrived at the R Resort and we’re preparing for a lovely time. Thanks as ever to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for the memorable trip thus far. I for one am really enjoying the journey – even if there do seem to be a lot of dead bodies turning up along the way. I’m about to go to the spa for a bit and unwind from the travel but before I do let me share my contribution for this stop – Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe.
Mma. Ramotswe is a private detective with her own agency – the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana. And one of the most appealing things about Mma. Ramotswe is that she is content to be where she is doing what she does. She is proud to be from Botswana and in many places in the series she makes it clear that she’s glad to live in Africa and especially in Botswana. For instance in Tears of the Giraffe Mma. Ramotswe gets a visit from Andrea Curtin, an ex-pat American who is looking for closure after the loss of her son Michael. Ten years earlier, Michael Curtin joined an eco-commune from whence he disappeared. The official explanation was that he’d been attacked by wild animals but his mother wants to know the truth. Here is Mma. Ramotswe’s first impression of Andrea Curtin:
“The skin of her hands was mottled, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the way that white people’s hands were if they were exposed to too much sun. Perhaps she was an American who had lived for many years in Africa; there were many of these people. They grew to love Africa and they stayed, sometimes until they died. Mma. Ramotswe could understand why they did this. She could not imagine why anybody would want to live anywhere else.”
When she hears the story of Michael Curtin’s disappearance, Mma. Ramotswe agrees to look into the case and she travels to the commune where he lived. In the end she finds out what really happened to him and is able to offer closure to his mother.
This case shows another of Mma. Ramotswe’s appealing qualities: her compassion. She became a detective to help people solve their problems and that goal continues to motivate her even after her agency gets an established reputation. She’s by no means a patsy but she has a warm and sympathetic personality that encourages people to confide in her. And what’s most appealing is that it’s not a front. She really does care about the people whose cases she takes and sometimes she even feels compassion for people who turn out to be guilty of things.
Part of the reason for that compassion is that Mma. Ramotswe has had her share of sadness in her life. She lost her beloved father and still feels that loss. She had a disastrous first marriage to an abusive husband too, and although she managed to escape that marriage, it left its scars. But Mma. Ramotswe hasn’t let her sorrows stop her from enjoying her life. She doesn’t wallow in self-pity and that’s quite refreshing.
Precious Ramotswe has a strong sense of ethics and that too makes her appealing. She believes strongly in doing the right thing and reserves her greatest contempt for those who are selfish and willfully hurt others. Sometimes, for instance, she’s been known to tell “little white lies” in order to solve cases. She also sees a place for that kind of lie if the result is that one avoids hurting others. But deliberate lies are a different thing. Here, from The Double Comfort Safari Club, is how Mma. Ramotswe puts it:
“Mma. Ramotswe did not believe in lying, but she did believe that there were occasions when one had to say things that were not completely true. We all do that, she thought…we all have to say things that are not strictly true in order to protect others from hurt.”
To Mma. Ramotswe, the greatest good comes when we help others and avoid hurting them and there’s something very appealing about that.
Mma. Ramotswe may be warm and compassionate but she has personal strength too. She goes up against implacable bureaucrats, self-important government officials and wealthy, influential “pillars of the community” without backing down. What’s appealing about this is her approach to these people. She always starts by assuming that they want to do the right thing and quite often that approach works. When it doesn’t she’s not afraid to tell them what she thinks, even though she’s not one for profanity. Sometimes she even uses a little subterfuge when nothing else works. For instance, in The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Ramotswe is trying to help her client Mr. Molofelo locate his former landlady Mma. Tsolamosese. Long ago Mr. Molofelo took a radio from the family and now he wants to make things right. Since Mma. Tsolamosese is the widow of a government employee, Mma. Ramotswe hits on the idea of finding her through the government pension office. The clerk responsible for those files refuses to give her any information, claiming that the rules forbid it. Here is what happens next (I admit, too; this is one of my personal favourite scenes from this series):
“‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’
‘Yes, Rra. I am sure that you are very good when it comes to rules…But sometimes, when one has to know so many rules, one can get them mixed up. You are thinking of Rule 25. This rule is really Rule 24(b), subsection (i)…The rule that deals with addresses is Rule 18, which has now been cancelled.’”
Mma. Ramotswe takes the clever approach of using the clerk’s own rules against him and gets the information she needs. That ability to think quickly and use her wits also adds to Mma. Ramotswe’s appeal.
Another appealing aspect of Mma. Ramotswe’s character is that she is comfortable with herself. She’s what is called a traditionally-built lady. But except for one occasion she doesn’t fret too much about not being a sylph. She’s got her own grace and dignity and part of that comes from her sense of contentment with who she is as a person. That said though, it’s also worth noting that Mma. Ramotswe grows as the series evolves and becomes more confident as a detective and wiser from some mistakes that she makes. Her ability to learn also makes her appealing.
Mma. Ramotswe is comfortable and comforting. She’s loyal to her friends, works hard for her clients and has a strong sense of integrity. She’s also got enough fun and wit in her to be really interesting. I have the feeling that I could tell her just about anything.